A pediatric occupational therapist, Cris Rowan, hit the headlines last summer when she made a plea for a total ban of handheld devices for all children under the age of twelve! You can imagine the reactions. It really got parents worked up. Of course, Rowan made some very valid points but the real solution is to allow kids to use these handheld devices, but not too often. As usual, the key is finding the right balance as there are all sorts of health and development issues. In this post I want to outline 8 reasons why children should not use these frequently.
1. Children are not turning their brains on.
If you allow a kid to play with her phone, computer games or tablet all day long, what happens? The child will not get enough exercise. Physical exercise is not only good for building muscles but also essential for turning our brains on. This applies especially to children, as outlined by Dr. John Ratey of Harvard Medical School, in his famous book, Spark. The Naperville School District (IL) kids were able to score top grades in the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) tests because they were doing regular physical exercise. They came out at number one in science and sixth in math – worldwide! More physical exercise and less use of electronic devices will help to improve grades and also reduce behavior problems.
“What Naperville provides is a powerful case study on how aerobic activity can transform not only the body but also the mind. It also happens to be a wonderful template for reshaping our society.” – Dr. John Ratey
2. Children may be exposed to too much radiation.
The problem with using cell phones and also cordless phones too much is that the brain may be exposed to radiation and this has been linked to cancer. There are no conclusive studies on this but the American Cancer Society says it is advisable to limit cell phone use, especially among young children.
The best solution is to encourage kids to make shorter phone calls and send more text messages. You could also take out a monthly subscription which will enable you to cut off your kid’s phone in the late evening and early morning. Set the example for your kids by encouraging them to take “tech time-out” especially at mealtimes. Everybody puts their phone in a designated place so that they actually get to talk to each other!
3. Children are not getting enough sleep.
When kids are allowed all their gadgets in the bedroom, this is a guarantee that the blue screen light is going to affect their sleep. There are loads of studies on this and one shows that the kids who have been playing on their tablets or phones just before sleeping, take longer to get off to sleep and do not sleep so well, either.
There is an easy solution to this in that parents can ban all devices from their kids’ bedrooms and make sure that they use their computer time in the common area before actually going to bed. Encourage the reading of bedtime stories and switching off TV one hour before bedtime.
4. Children will take ages to do homework.
Kids might consider multi-tasking cool when they have to do homework. Checking their Facebook account and emails are just part of the normal distracted process. But studies show that it takes four times longer to recognize each new activity, than if you were just concentrating on one task.
Parents differ in their approaches. Some parents just ban the use of phones during homework and when teens protest that their friends are allowed to do so, they just say “our house, our rules.”
I favor the “interval training” approach. Here teens are asked to try half an hour of homework with no distractions at all from any device. After that, they are allowed to check Facebook and so on. But they quickly realize how much more efficient they are when they are not distracted. This may work better than having a total ban. We also have to keep in mind that tablets are really useful for some homework tasks and more and more students are using them efficiently. Maybe we just have to draw the line at social media and text messaging.
Dr. Jenny Radesky works at the Developmental –Behavioral Pediatrics Department at the University of Boston. Her research has shown that allowing these toddlers of two or three years of age to play excessively with these gadgets will affect their cognitive development negatively. At this age they need to develop motor, visual and spatial skills which are essential for healthy development. Even more alarming is the practice of handing a device to a child who is having a tantrum! This is no substitute for learning how to interact and control strong emotions.
The best solution is probably to ban devices for these babies and toddlers. They do not need to update their status on Facebook just yet! Parents should ensure that they have plenty of normal kids’ toys and games which will help them to develop their manual dexterity. A touch screen cannot do that.
6. Children may be at increased risk of mental illness.
Can it really be true that increased rates of child depression, attention disorders, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues are due to excessive use of handheld devices? Studies on this have revealed that this exaggerated use may indeed be a cause. Aggression and problematic child behavior are the usual manifestations that there may be a problem.
How about a screen-free day for everyone in the family to help reduce the risks? Another idea is to make sure that you can monitor your child’s use and set limits accordingly. Obviously you will be setting the example by being a role model and not listening to your child with one ear while the other is glued to your smartphone!
7. Children may become couch potatoes.
It does not take rocket science to understand that too much sedentary activity which is mostly watching TV, surfing, chatting and gaming will lead to obesity. There are countless studies on this one. First, TV ads are full of low nutrient and high calorie foods which are aimed at a young audience, as evidenced by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) report. A lot of these commercials are now shown on smartphones and tablets.
More time with these devices will lead to fewer physical activities and sports. This means that kids are just not getting enough exercise and also they are consuming far too many calories. Wrong food choices aggravate the problem.
The best approach to take is to ensure that all the family are taking part in some physical activity whether it is just playing sports, jogging or walking the dog. It becomes a ritual and there should be set times for this. This helps to get the child weaned off those electronic devices. A total ban never makes sense as the kid will discover ways round that.
8. Children may suffer from eye strain.
It is now becoming more and more common for children to suffer from eye strain after staring at screens for hours and hours. This is sometimes known as computer vision syndrome. Watch out for dry, red and sore eyes. Sometimes, children may experience blurry vision and have problems with words moving on the screen because their eyes are not properly aligned. Eye fatigue, focus issues and even double vision are other problems as reported by the Singapore Health Xchange.
You can avoid eye problems setting in at an early age by making sure that sessions involving near screen work are limited to 30 minutes a time. Make sure that there are plenty of breaks and that outdoor activity is not neglected.
Who wants to raise a child who is attached to a screen? At the other extreme, we do not want our kids to miss out on connecting with our fascinating world. They can chat to grandparents on Skype, play games, learn facts, read and socialize. We just have to make sure that they get the balance right.